Charli XCX Is Brash And Vulnerable On Her Bombastic New Album ‘Crash’

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Though Charli XCX is always going to do it her way, Crash is about as close to a mainstream pop record as she’s ever gotten. With five records and a deeply influential mixtape, Pop 2, under her belt before this release, Charli is no longer a fledgling pop talent with a chip on her shoulder; Crash cements her as the pop veteran who can do it all. Given it’s her last album for Atlantic Records, the major label that has released all five of her studio albums, it makes sense for Charli to play the mainstream star after years of flirting with the boundary between having a “main pop-girl moment” and relentlessly avoiding the surreal machinations those moments demand.

Across the album’s twelve tracks, in just under 34 minutes, Charli distills sounds and tones from practically every corner and era of pop, filtering it all through her own glitchy, no-holds-barred lens. Playing by the rules is almost her way of giving a coy Elle Woods “what, like it’s hard?” brush off to the artists who can’t color outside the lines the way she often does. “Oh, I love selling out,” Charli told NPR days before the album release. “Selling out creates pop culture. To get Warhol-y about it, that’s what that is — it’s mass-market selling out. I think it’s pop-tastic and fun and disposable. We’re in this disposable culture now more than ever so I’m kind of here for it.” The funny thing is, even when Charli goes full tilt — big hair, slutty, video-vixen outfits, virgin and whore dichotomies galore — she can’t shake the counter-culture twist that has always defined her.

Early single “Good Ones” was a rollercoaster of ’80s synths and self-destruction, but Charli followed that up with the inventive “New Shapes,” featuring Christine & The Queens and Caroline Polachek, two pop innovators who would, nevertheless, remain on the periphery without an XCX single dragging them into the spotlight. “Beg For You,” a collaboration with rising UK pop star Rina Sawayama, is an album standout but leans way more into the hyperpop sound that defined previous projects like Pop 2 and how i’m feeling now. Then again, it also samples September’s “Cry For You,” an early aughts Swedish pop hit that’s a Europop club song to the hilt. After Charli’s last big swing, her self-titled 2019 record, failed to connect like it seemed poised to, her instinct seemed to be returning to weirder impulses right away. But maybe how i’m feeling now wiped the slate clean because there’s very little of that frenetic, linear songwriting on this follow-up.

The critical acclaim that both of her previous throw-it-all-at-the-wall releases, Pop 2 and how i’m feeling now, received seemed to imply that Charli works best in a time crunch. Yet, Crash easily surpasses both of those tapes, and it’s much more structured than anything she’s done in the last five years, outside of Charli. If anything, Crash feels like a mashup of the chaotic Charli who loops Autotune vocal whorls and the woman who penned songs like “I Love It,” and “Same Old Love” and gave them away. By immediately moving from the most inventive album in her discography to the most straightforward, Charli is toying with the rules of pop itself, forcing listeners to contrast and compare the choices an artist who wants both freedom and fame is forced to make.

These difficult choices are mirrored in these songs’ reflections on relationships, too. On the album’s core middle tracks, “Baby” and “Lightning,” Charli alternates between active and passive roles in a loving relationship, but most of the album’s material skews sad, echoing the lead single’s narrative of a relationship’s demise. “Constant Repeat” and “Every Rule” outline love on the verge of destruction, with our heroine’s confident assertions that a potential partner missed out on her love on the former, and a slower meditation on guilty happiness in the midst of infidelity on the latter. These songs are brash and vulnerable at turns, never quite backing down from the bombast that defines Crash, but not quite letting the record assume a simple, mainstream storyline; Charli is always more complicated than that, perhaps even when she doesn’t want to be.

One of the best examples of her wonderful strangeness is “Yuck,” a song that decries a partner’s loving affirmations and constant check-ins, all while noting that if they ever went missing, she’d be just as put off. These weirder songs on Crash take a few more listens to get to the bottom of, like the album closer, “Twice,” a song about assuming the worst will happen, but trying not to think about it. In these middle spaces, stuck squarely between happiness and skeletal existentialism, is where XCX seems to be the most at home, and that’s the polarity that Crash embodies: An artist who knows she has everything and is just as sure that something important is missing.

Crash is out now on Atlantic. Stream it here.